Since Antonio Conte switched to 1-3-4-3, Chelsea has been unstoppable, with several wins and emphatic performances against top opponents. One team after the other, all fell down, while Chelsea is assuming itself as the leading candidate to the title. Since the switch, Chelsea has 12 wins, 28 goals scored and 2 conceded in 12 games.
So what’s so special about this system? Let’s check out the strengths and also some weaknesses that can be exploited.
Chelsea starts the build up in a 1-3-2-2-3 formation. Usually, the ball is played out through the back of the 3 defenders responsible for giving width. This allows the central defenders to deal with a higher pressure and also to stretch the opponent, opening up passing lanes to the midfield.
Width is provided by both wing backs, getting upfield as soon as the build-up starts, with the wingers occupying the halfspaces. It’s fairly easy to break lines with this setup. Frequently, Chelsea’s wing-backs\ attract opposing full-backs attention. This creates space behind that can be exploited by the winger. When the opponent is able to effectively press the wing-back, he has the central midfielder as a short option. The central midfielder can then move the ball to the other flank, carry it upfield or try to draw a pass in between the lines.
Chelsea’s attack is targeted to take advantage of both width and depth. Depth, just like during the buildup, is provided by the wing-backs. Once Chelsea establishes possession in the final third, the wing-backs go even further upfield, acting like wingers by constantly giving width, while the wingers search for inside spaces. From there, they can drop into the midfield to receive the ball or take advantage of the space created in the opposing backline due to the wing-backs placement. This is something Chelsea is always looking for, even during transition.
In this example, Marcos Alonso’s position attracts the attention of the Manchester City´s defender for a moment, long enough for Hazard to sneak in behind them and get one-on-one with the keeper. This wing-back´s positioning demands a lot of attention from opposing wingers, because this move will happen countless times during the match. Another advantage of this kind of positioning is that the 3 forward players are so close together, that bring us back to the way Chelsea exploits depth.
It all starts with the vertical runs by the 3 forwards. One drops deep, the others support him. This vertical stretch, along with the horizontal stretch created by the wing-backs, makes it very difficult to keep a cohesive defensive line against Chelsea.
Conte’s defense is a difficult to obtain balance between man oriented pressing and zonal marking. Chelsea counter-presses with intensity and a strong man orientation. If with this initial reaction the ball recover fails, the team fits in a mid-block 1-4-5-1 with zonal marking. This transition can happen sooner or later, depending on the game situation and opponent´s strength. If we’re in the first minutes of the game, Chelsea presses high, trying to lead the opponent towards the flanks where the pressure zone can be triggered.
The forward’s body positioning makes opposing defenders get the ball quickly to the flanks where Chelsea’s wing-backs are ready to press hard with the help of the central midfield. The opposing winger is left with no other option then play it back quickly or lose it. This is the perfect example of how to use the touchline as an extra defender. The player has one defender behind him, another on the left and the touchline on the right. He has nowhere to go.
Although Chelsea has only suffered 2 goals in 12 games since 1-3-4-3 was adopted, they are only in third place with regards to conceded shots, behind Liverpool and Manchester City. Conte wants his team to control both width and depth without the ball. That’s why they change so quickly to a 1-5-4-1 after failing the counter press. But this formation really just accomplishes one of those two things. It allows to defend width really well with many vertical lines but makes it hard to control depth with only 3 horizontal lines. The Italian coach expects this to be minimized through the proximity between lines and the players in the same line. Sometimes, there’s a communication gap that allows stronger opponents to take advantage, as has happened a couple of times in the game with Manchester City.
All in all, Conte’s 1-3-4-3 is very similar (functionally) to his 1-3-5-2 at Juventus, but the individual strengths are better used, without ever sacrificing his key principles.